Mount Readmore Book Review, 2018 103/200
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Finished on 6/23/2018
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the “Hand of God,” as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground.
When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.
Genres: Cyberpunk, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction, Arabic Fantasy, Fantasy, World Fantasy Award Winner
The Hand of God Sees All
Well, that was a wild ride. ALIF THE UNSEEN is a story of djinn and hackers, mosques and smart phone smugglers. In a Middle Eastern police state which is in the middle of an anti-corruption purge, Alif is a grey-hat hacker who provides internet security against both black hat hackers (aka criminals) and white hat hackers (aka government censors). When the government’s super-powered intelligence branch brings down the hammer on Alif, he’s forced to go on the run with his best friend Dina, a fantasy-reading, veil wearing young woman.
I loved this quite a lot. I think this is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year, topping JADE CITY. The characters are vibrant and colorful, the settings are vibrant and colorful, the plot is intricate but not tangled.
All the characters are three dimensional, with oddities and banalities. Of the characters, I liked Dina the best. She’s a brave young woman who secretly loves Alif, even though he loves another woman. She’s extremely out of her depth in the chaos which has befallen the Emirate, but that’s not enough to cause her to back down.
The plot is a gradually unfolding story of rebellion against tyranny. It begins with Alif being dumped by his girlfriend Intisar- except a few days later she sends him a mysterious package. And as state police clamps down seeking that package, Alif must go on the run, seeking aid from djinni. We’re introduced to kindly old clerics, talking tabby cats, demons who can’t answer questions, state torture-prisons in the middle of the desert and Arab-Spring like revolutions. Honestly I’m surprised the author was able to make such a diverse plot make sense, but there is a clear through-line from moment to moment.
The pacing was well done. While there is a slow start for a few chapters, after that the story takes off like a rocketship. There are slower moments later on, but those slow moments are suitable and serve to enhance the plot.
The setting was great. I liked how lived-in the world seemed: we have Malay tea shops and Indian *cough*slave*cough* laborers underpinning the wealthy Arab world of mosques and oil wells. The American character is treated with a sort of affectionate disrespect, while Egyptians are viewed as being sort of out there compared with the local Arabs. I liked it a lot.
I especially liked how the characters were earnest about their Muslim identity- it made the characters seem more sincere and made the setting seem more truthful. If I were to critique a lot of modern Fantasy lit, I would say that we don’t take the spiritual or divine very seriously. In fantasy books at best religion is benevolent but not very useful, and at worst organized religion is nefarious and secretly evil. I liked how religion is used by both the good and bad characters as motive and culture.
If I have to give constructive criticism, I’ll say that the prose was spotty. At times the prose was fantastic, particularly when discussing the stories from the Thousand and One Days, while at other times it was merely functional. It was like the author used two different narrative voices to write this book, an ‘elegant’ voice used only for special occasions and a ‘plain’ voice for everyday use.
The next bit of criticism I have is that the female characters need some work. I think Dina has plenty of agency, but she didn’t actually do much which affected the plot. Meanwhile, the Convert suffers a little from ‘along for the ride’ syndrome. She just goes along for the ride with whatever Alif, Vikram or Dina suggest. At first this is believable, but eventually she winds up in an alternate dimension married to a djinn and pregnant with his child based on the suggestions of other characters, which seemed out of character. Her character could have been handled better.
Highly Recommended. This was a very approachable book.